The Condition Affecting New Dads That No One Is Talking About

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“I was holding on by a fingernail.”

“I was feeling really hopeless.”

“I didn’t know how to get out of this rut.”

These may sound like the expressions of a new mom experiencing postpartum depression, but they’re actually the words of Israel Smith, a father of two in Sydney, Australia, who sunk into a deep depression after his son Rilien’s birth, according to the Daily Mail.

Smith isn’t the only dad out there suffering from what society often considers a “female” ailment. “There’s this bias that you have to have a uterus to experience postpartum depression,” says Karen Kleiman, founder of The Postpartum Stress Center in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “Just like it’s difficult for men to get help for breast cancer, men don’t want to admit out loud they have postpartum depression.” That’s why she prefers to call the disorder “depression after the birth of a baby” or “paternal depression,” two terms that often feel less stigmatizing.

The truth is, about one in 10 new dads experiences prenatal and postpartum depression, according to a 2010 study review, published in JAMA — and that estimate may be on the low side, says Daniel Singley, PhD, a psychologist in San Diego who specializes in men’s issues and parenthood. “Out in the real world of practice, nobody is screening dads.”

Even among doctors who are watching for depression in new dads, the problem may still be under-diagnosed, since the DSM-V (the diagnostic manual for psychologists) says postpartum depression must appear in the first four to six weeks after baby’s arrival. “Men tend to have an increase in symptoms at about three to six months, whereas maternal depression tends to spike within the first month or so,” says Singley.

That may be because the three-month mark is often when new moms return to work, forcing the couple to renegotiate their roles. “Suddenly, what’s expected of Dad — his duties and responsibilities for the baby and the mother — changes,” James F. Paulson, author of the JAMA review, tells Yahoo Health. “There’s a rebalancing that has to take place at that point, and I think that disproportionately affects dads.” 

Another potential barrier to diagnosis: Postpartum depression in new fathers may not manifest in the same ways it does in women, although the same clinical criteria are used to diagnose both sexes. “Men are a little more likely to be distant, a little bit more removed,” says Paulson. That might mean actively avoiding the infant, or even just holing up and watching Netflix. And while depressed moms are often weepy and sad, down-in-the-dumps dads might just seem irritable or angry.

It’s not entirely clear why some parents suffer from the blues after their little one’s arrival. In a 2007 Psychiatry review, Cornell University researchers suggested that paternal depression may be a product of hormonal changes: testosterone goes down, and estrogen goes up, among other fluctuations in bonding hormones. “Many physicians have assumed for a long time that [postpartum depression] is due to physical and hormonal changes,” Paulson says. “The fact is, all the research that’s tried to identify hormonal causes has been relatively modest in its findings. We see social and experiential factors playing a much bigger role.”

Financial stress is a biggie for both sexes — in fact, according to Paulson, it’s a more reliable predictor of the baby blues in women than any hormonal changes. However, it may also be especially salient for men, since they often prepare for their baby by working hard to make more money, says Singley, who calls this “daddy nesting.” As a byproduct of this natural impulse, new dads may start to doubt their ability to make ends meet. “The looming burden of, ‘Am I going to be able to take care of my family and provide for them?’ is one of the biggest triggers in men for feeling anxiety and depression after childbirth,” says Kleiman.

On top of the financial worries, there are the sudden changes in a couple’s relationship dynamic, which may leave a new dad feeling incompetent, neglected, or overwhelmed. “If there is trouble in the relationship between Mom and Dad, that puts them both at greater risk for depression,” says Paulson. And it’s not necessarily the inevitable changes in their sex life that are to blame, as you might expect. “The drop-off in libido doesn’t play as big a role as many people had thought,” he says. The bigger hurdle: figuring out who does what, both in terms of caring for the baby and tackling household chores.

A new mom may push her partner to the sidelines when it comes to infant care, leaving him feeling incapable and uninvolved. Or if he’s already experiencing depression, he may not lend a hand as often as necessary, creating additional tension.

This not only harms the parents’ relationship — it can also hinder the infant’s development. When dads are depressed, research shows they may not read to their children or provide comfort and emotional support as often, notes Paulson. On the flip side, “there’s a good body research that shows positive outcomes for the baby when the father is involved in the so-called ‘fourth trimester,’” adds Singley. “They have better psychosocial development, emotional regulation, cognitive sophistication, and school readiness.”

So what can new dads do to keep depression at bay?

Plan a preemptive attack.

If you have a history of depression or anxiety — a strong risk factor for postpartum trouble — consider recruiting your primary-care doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist to monitor your mental health before your little one arrives. (Hint: Do this even if your partner has a history of mental-health issues, since that puts you at a heightened risk of postpartum depression, too.)  “Stay ahead of it,” says Singley. “Don’t just hope it’s going to go away.” Once your baby is born, make sure to tell your partner if you’re feeling down. And if the symptoms don’t fade, seek professional help.

Negotiate roles beforehand.

Don’t wait until you have a brand-new baby in your arms to figure out who’s going to wash the dishes. During pregnancy, discuss your new roles: Who will get up for nighttime feedings? Who’s going to do the grocery shopping? “That kind of management and planning can go a very long way in preventing later problems in the relationship,” says Paulson. “An/d it can actually protect the couple from depression.” Another area to hash out beforehand: your budget.

Take paternity leave.

If your workplace offers paternity leave — or you’re able to stockpile vacation days for this purpose — don’t hesitate to take advantage. That way, you’ll feel more involved, since you’re actively participating in your child’s care early on. Try this: Split your time, so you take half when your little one is born and the other half six months down the road. This often helps dads stress less about missing work, says Singley, and allows them to spend time with their infant after he or she has reached some developmental milestones.

Bolster your relationship.

Think of your family as a triangle, with you, your partner, and your child as its three points. After the baby’s arrival, “Mom and Dad tend to focus on the legs of the triangle from them to the baby, but not so much on the leg that goes between the two of them,” says Singley.

But the truth is, in order to be a good team, you have to keep your bond as a couple strong. Within a few weeks of your baby’s arrival, establish a new routine that gives you time as a couple, even if you’re not able (or willing) to go on dates just yet. For example, designate an hour each night where you play cards, watch your favorite TV show, or just have a meal together, suggests Paulson. “Find ways to cultivate that relationship,” he says.

Take time for yourself.

Don’t feel guilty about spending time with the guys to decompress. “Dad doesn’t feel entitled to play golf or just go have a coffee with his friends,” Singley says. “But the reality is, both Mom and Dad need to go off and recharge with other people. Then they come back into the relationship as better parents and partners.” Just let your partner know when you need some time, and suggest taking turns with taking breaks.

By Laura Tedesco